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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Terms Limits for Congressional Committee Chieftains

Props to Markos and the New York Times’ Carl Hulsey for noting something in the just-enacted Democratic House rules package that I missed: the retention of Newt Gingrich’s one good idea–term limits on committee chairmen.Neither of them get into the grittiest problem with this idea: the understandable reluctance of African-American chairs to give up their newfound power in the same seniority system that was used for so very long to obstruct and delay civil rights, and to marginalize and even humiliate minority Members.And by explaining the term limits issue strictly in terms of Caucus and leadership discipline, Markos and Hulsey also miss another well-identified problem with Perpetual Chairmanships: the tendency of Perpetual Chairmen to get trapped in the Iron Triangle uniting the executive-branch programs they supposedly oversee, the special-interest and advocacy groups that exist to defend and/or expand those programs (most of whom are avid campaign contributors), and their own professional committee staffs, who are typically cycling through the other sides of the triangle.According to Hulsey, Speaker Pelosi has privately indicated that the term-limits decision could be reversed later on. Let’s hope that’s not the case. There are other ways to ensure that minority voices in the House Caucus are heard; for one thing, “term-limited” committee and subcommittee chairs can be moved to equally influential perches. In any event, it will certainly be hard for this Democratic Congress to pose as a vehicle for “reform” if it backtracks on one of the most ancient and well-abused privileges of the Old Order.

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